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Huawei steps into Samsung gap

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Barely weeks after Samsung buried its latest large-format smartphone, Huawei stepped into the breach with its most serious contender yet, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Five years ago, which represents many lifetimes in the smartphone world, Samsung sent shockwaves through the industry when it announced it had sold 10-million units of its Galaxy Note, the device that introduced the world to the “phablet” concept of large-screen phones.

Its wild popularity utterly contradicted all the derision heaped on it by hip online technology media. Engadget, then still enamoured with the iPhone’s miniature screen, harrumphed that it was “obnoxiously large”. No wonder people tend to forget the first Note had a mere 5.3-inch screen.

By the time Apple caught up with a 5.5-inch screen on the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014, the same publication soothingly declared, “The market has changed, and it was high time Apple did the same.”

Today, the phablet market is the most vigorously contested of all smartphone segments. However, the main contenders for the large-screen crown have all but abdicated. Samsung’s beautifully designed Note 7 not only crashed and burned, but also proved to be such a public relations disaster that it became the first device ever banned by model name from all major airlines.

Meanwhile, Apple declared the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus to be “the best iPhone we have ever made”, stating the obvious while launching a truly unexciting phone. Only Samsung’s failings made Apple look good.

Now suddenly, a new contender has stepped into the breach. Chinese-headquartered Huawei, which has slowly clawed its way into third place in global smartphone sales with quality phones at competitive prices, is about to make a big leap.

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At a launch event in Munich last week, it unveiled one of the most ambitious phablets the market has seen, packing no less than 5.9-inches of display into its new Mate 9. But the size is not the main thing going for it. Two other features stand out dramatically.

Almost as a response to the Samsung battery blow-out, Huawei has made “a safe, faster-charging battery” one of the centrepieces of the phone. It houses a massive 4000 mAh high-density battery, using its own technology that it has branded SuperCharge.

It promises more than two days of uninterrupted performance., and early tests bear this out. Using the new USB-C connector type and a proprietary cable, it charges in half the time of previous versions, and a 10 minute quick charge gives half a day of usage. This is on top of the kind of battery management options that have given the Huawei P series an edge since it startled the industry with the P6 in 2013.

To overcome fears that this “super battery” could be another Note 7 debacle in the making, Huawei has provided more details on its battery management tools than ever before, spelling out what it calls “Super Safe 5-gate protection”, and providing the user with “real-time voltage, current and temperature monitoring to eliminate safety hazards”.

The second standout feature of the phone is a dual-lens camera engineered in collaboration with lens pioneers Leica. Their relationship made its debut with the Huawei P9 earlier this year, and has been cemented just eight months later with an even better camera: one that gives the Samsung S7 and S7 Edge a run for their image money.

The optical performance of the camera module is given steroids by the dual-lens format, made up of a 12-megapixel/F2.2 RGB sensor and a 20-megapixel/F2.2 monochrome sensor. Huawei has used what it calls “fusion algorithms” to enable  the two lenses to work in concert.

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“The RGB sensor captures true-to-life colours, while the monochrome sensor captures intricate details and depth, resulting in the iconic Leica Image Style,” ran the launch announcement. “When paired with the leading dual-lens camera Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) solution and the industry’s first dual-camera pixel binning technology, the Huawei Mate 9 has a superior night shot capability.”

At the launch, Huawei Consumer Business Group CEO  Richard Yu said that the phone was also designed to address the “top three pain points of smartphone users: ageing performance, meaning it slows down over time; not enough battery life; and an average camera”.

“You always need a better camera,” he declared. That is taken for granted by most users. But how does one address ageing performance? The longer a phone is in use, the more the battery degrades, the more memory allocation becomes clogged, and the more the software becomes corrupted. Yu believes Huawei has the answer. And it is close to artificial intelligence.

“A machine learning algorithm makes predictive allocation of resources. This enables smart memory allocation, and smart storage optimisation. By learning the user’s behaviour patterns, it makes sure the highest priority applications are given priority in system resources.

“Our new EMUI 5.0 interface for Android learns from users and from apps, and provides spontaneous resource optimisation. So, after eight months of usage, instead of the phone having deteriorated, you will see over 80% performance improvement.”

This potential allowed Yu to deliver one of the most powerful punchlines yet in the brief history of smartphone launches: “Born fast, stays fast.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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